Welfare Payments for returning Irish Emigrants

Many left without benefits by complex residency rule
JAMIE SMYTH Social Affairs Correspondent
HUNDREDS OF returning Irish emigrants are being mistakenly refused social welfare payments because complex rules introduced to prevent “welfare tourism” are not understood by welfare officers.
In at least two cases this year Irish nationals who returned from living abroad were left destitute and homeless when they were refused welfare payments, the Oireachtas Committee on Social Protection heard yesterday.
Joe O’Brien, policy officer with Crosscare – a non-governmental organisation working with Irish migrants – said the two homeless cases in Dublin and Sligo showed how the habitual residency rules were not being applied correctly by many welfare officers.“We have seen a five-fold increase in returning emigrants coming to us with habitual residency problems.
Since the start of the year 51 people have presented to our service because they have been refused payments due to the habitual residency rules,” he said.
He said this does not bode well for the current generation of emigrants leaving Ireland for abroad.
The requirement to be habitually resident in Ireland to qualify for welfare was introduced on May 1st, 2004, when the Government opened the labour market to workers from new EU states.
It is designed to safeguard the welfare system from abuse by restricting access for people who are not economically active in the Republic, or who have little or no connection with the country.
Under the rules welfare officers must consider length and continuity of residence in Ireland or other parts of the Common Travel Area; length and purpose of any absence from Ireland or the Common Travel Area; nature and pattern of employment; main centre of interest; and future intentions to live in Ireland as it appears from the evidence.
The EU ruled a two-year residency requirement introduced by the State in 2004 was illegal forcing the government to amend the law in 2007. But confusion remains on this point, NGOs claim.
Crosscare and Free Legal Advice Centres have highlighted the growing numbers of returning Irish emigrants refused benefits because of a misapplication of the habitual residency rules.
Some 1,723 Irish nationals were refused welfare payments because they did not satisfy the habitual residency rules in 2008 and 2009, compared to 853 in the previous two-year period.
The Department of Social Protection no longer collects statistics on refusals in a centralised manner as decisions have been devolved to local offices.
Some 16,879 people, including Irish nationals, EU nationals and non-EU nationals, were disallowed payments in 2008 and 2009, based on a failure to satisfy the habitual residence condition.
Anne Vaughan, assistant secretary at the Department of Social Protection, said the rules were complex and the department was currently reviewing the guidelines provided to welfare officers on the habitual residency conditions.
One particular area that was causing problems was the Common Travel Area, which is not considered particularly relevant for tests made under the rules.
She rejected claims made by Fine Gael TD Bernard Durkan that people were being refused payments because of the shortage of money caused by the recession.
Labour TD Róisín Shortall said the huge pressure on welfare staff was contributing to a lack of awareness of the guidelines. She criticised the 27½-week average waiting time it takes to decide on appeals against refusals.
“People are left in dire circumstances, becoming homeless and living on the street due to the length of appeals,” she said.
BRENDAN WAS initially refused carers’ allowance because a welfare officer decided he didn’t meet the habitual residence condition.
“I lived and worked all my life in Ireland but six years ago my wife and I decided to try living in Spain.
“We spent five years there but then my mother, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, had a fall. I decided to come home and look after her.
“I applied for the carer’s allowance, which is worth about €212 a week.
“I was refused and when I tried to contact the authorities to question this decision I felt like I was being stonewalled.
“They kept mentioning the fact that I had been out of the country. But as I understand it that isn’t in the rules.
“It was also a strange decision because I was actually saving the State money by coming home and caring for my mother.
“I contacted Crosscare, who helped me to appeal the decision. the whole process took about eight months.
“It was stressful and I had to use my savings to get by because I was caring full time for my mother and my wife doesn’t have a job.
“It’s like the whole system is set up to refuse you access to a payment and push you down the appeals route.
“I hear politicians encouraging people to go abroad but people should consider they may be disowned when they come back.”